Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Review of ‘Jerusalem Beach’ by Iddo Gefen

In the opening story of Jerusalem Beach by Iddo Gefen, translated by Daniella Zamir (Astra House, August 2021), an eighty-year-old man enlists in the Golani infantry brigade. His son is sure he has “lost his marbles.” Serving in the army at that age would “help death along.” The old man replies that he is “trying to outrun death.”

In this story, “The Geriatric Platoon,” the IDF has established “a unit for the elderly, mainly for show” and their service on the border is “just a game everyone’s playing.” But for the wayward, elderly soldier, service in the army is much more than a game. His worried son and grandson go into action to bring the old man home, and an incident on the border makes their mission more urgent than ever.

In the story’s subplot, the narrator is receiving a series of emails from his estranged mother. Will connections between family members be repaired by story’s end, or will tragedy drive them apart? This well-constructed story, partially epistolary in format, leaves readers eager to dive into the rest of the collection.

Thicket of dreams

Many of Gefen’s stories are otherworldly, although you wouldn’t classify them exactly as science fiction but rather narratives focused on memories and dreams. There is an interplanetary coming-of-age tale in “The Girl Who Lived Near the Sun”; dreams are monitored and built in “Debby’s Dream House”; and memories are shared in “How to Remember a Desert”; but two tender, very emotional stories make this collection a tour de force of new Israeli literature.

In “Exit,” a young girl wanders into the desert and “disappear[s] into the thicket of her dreams,” leading her mother to say, ‘’Something in her eyes has changed since we moved south."

The family’s move to the Negev has given the mother a chance to advance her career, while the father is stuck, working alone on developing an app for his start-up. Seeing how his wife was not relating to “her little girl falling apart before her very eyes,” the father realizes “she [had] shifted the responsibility for our daughter’s care over to me.”

As the young girl grows distant, withdrawing from the waking world while walking a fine line between memories and dreams, her anxious parents think that if they just understood what she was dreaming about, they could find a solution to her mysterious medical condition. Readers will sympathize with these helpless parents, hoping that the young girl will find a way out of her dreams and back into the arms of her caring family.

First memories

The dream-like title story, “The Jerusalem Beach,” is the most touching in the entire collection. An elderly woman is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Along with her caring husband, “they went looking for her first memory, snow on the beach in Jerusalem.” Her husband knows the memory, and the beach itself, are probably imaginary, but what wouldn’t one do to in hopes to help the woman you love?

The two arrive at the central bus station in Jerusalem, board the “miraculous” light rail train, and travel to the Machane Yehuda market. Jerusalem has changed immensely since his last visit decades before. Just like his wife, he, too, finds himself “lost in time and space.” Readers will be eager to learn if the snowy beach is a dream or a true memory “too precious to place in the hands of another, even of a loved one.”

When you read Gefen’s stories, with their diverse characters, and cross-genre themes of memories and dreams, you never know what you’re going to get. But one thing you do know. Each story is going to be very enjoyable to read.

Iddo Gefen is an author and neurocognitive researcher at the Virtual and Augmented Reality Lab at the Sagol Brain Institute. He leads an innovative study to diagnose aspects of Parkinson’s disease using storytelling and augmented reality. Jerusalem Beach, his first book, received the Israeli Minister of Culture’s Award in 2017, and he won the National Library of Israel “Pardes” Scholarship for young writers in 2019.


Originally published on The Times of Israel.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

From the Archive: What Reviewers Said About “The Virtual Kibbutz”

The Virtual Kibbutz – a collection of short stories – has been selected as a finalist in the Fiction – Short Stories category of the ForeWord Magazine 2003 Book of the Year Awards, honoring excellence in independent publishing.”

That press release was from April 2004, and while the book did not win the award, its nomination was yet another example of the positive response it received from readers, reviewers, and independent publishers.

Here is a small selection of what reviewers said about The Virtual Kibbutz, shortly after its publication:


“It is a lively collection of readable, imaginative short stories descriptive of kibbutz life … Shuman conveys both warmth and sadness in his stories, along with a sense of intimacy and a feeling of regret for the possible passing of a history of which he was a part. The stories are simple, but rich and informative, as they describe ordinary, individual, everyday living in a kibbutz.”  -- Akron Jewish News


“Shuman captures the realities of today’s kibbutz as members struggle to stay in sight of a rapidly changing society. What makes the book so engaging is that he treats it all with the language and imagery of an inspired storyteller.”  -- Hamilton Jewish News


The Virtual Kibbutz is … a must read for anyone interested in understanding the issues facing this uniquely Israeli institution. The underlying theme of the collection is change – as Israel evolves into a high tech capitalist economy, kibbutzim are struggling to stay true to their ideology while making social and economic changes to maintain their viability.” -- The Source, Israel Info-Access Magazine


“I recommend the book to anyone who has spent time on a kibbutz, anyone interested in learning more about the very unique society of the kibbutz, or anyone who enjoys reading about Israel in general. I found the stories fun and enlightening.” -- Judaism site


“The Virtual Kibbutz gives one an insider’s look into the most personal aspects of kibbutz life. And one is left kvelling at the accomplishments of our fellow Jews in the face of nearly insurmountable odds … Each narrative is a distinct unit, with each story just the right length to read on a commute or before bedtime. If you like reading true yet Hamish stories which leave you with a smile in your heart, then this book should be on your ‘must read’ list.” – JewishIndy

Buy The Virtual Kibbutz here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Not all Israeli Netflix dramas are good. Case in point: Hit & Run

Israel has been very successful exporting television shows in recent years. Two shows that enjoyed huge success in their American adaptations are the HBO psychotherapy drama “In Treatment” (based on the Israeli series
BeTipul); and the Showtime counterterrorism thriller “Homeland” (based on the Israeli series Hatufim).

In the age of streaming services, Israel has seen trans-Atlantic transports of original content in Hebrew. The most surprisingly successful show has been “Shtisel”. The third season about a Haredi family living in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem is now available on Netflix.

Another Netflix success story is “Fauda”, which very realistically tells the story of “a top Israeli agent [who] comes out of retirement to hunt for a Palestinian fighter he thought he'd killed, setting a chaotic chain of events into motion.” In Israel, this series is possibly too close to home for comfort, but it has attracted a huge international audience.

One could assume that the creators of “Fauda”—Avi Issacharoff (Middle East commentator for The Times of Israel) and Lior Raz (who also stars in the series)—have a Midas touch, and anything with their name in the credits would be golden.

Unfortunately, this is not the case.

“Hit & Run” premiered recently on Netflix and the 9-episode series is listed as one of the top 10 shows in Israel today. The show relates the story of a “man searching for the truth behind his wife's death” only to be “caught up in a dangerous web of secrets and intrigue stretching from New York to Tel Aviv.”

There are many problems with this show. Although Israeli viewers will enjoy identifying local Tel Aviv scenery, the plot has so many holes that one can’t help but be amazed that someone dared to write a script like this. (While Issacharoff and Raz are listed as creators, they only wrote the first episode).

The main problem with “Hit & Run” though, is its main character. Lior Raz may have been good, and believable, as the star of “Fauda” but here is grotesquely out of place. Looking like a terrorist on the hunt, we can’t help but cringe every time he appears. A man we are supposed to have sympathy for goes on a killing rage and seems to enjoy it. When this travel agent-turned-avenger gets locked up and beaten to the core, we can’t help but cheer. Keep him in jail and out of our living rooms!

No spoilers here. I won’t give away the ending because after a few episodes, you’ll wonder what’s the point? You might make it to end of the ninth episode, but this could be in hopes that the main character will be killed off, thereby preventing a second season.


Originally published on The Times of Israel

Photo credit: Netflix official site